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A new survey out from the U.S. Census has experts scratching their heads. The first new Household Pulse Survey in more than a month was expected to show some growth in the number of people experiencing hunger or food insecurity.
The last time one was released, federal pandemic unemployment assistance — $600 per week — was still reaching affected households. It ended in August, and experts expected the numbers to shoot up.
But the numbers paradoxically went down.
In Texas, the number of people who sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat dropped from 3.6 million at the end of July to just over 2.1 million in the latest survey conducted near the end of August. The weekly survey was on hiatus in between.
“I am not comfortable comparing week 12 to week 13,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. “I would encourage you to do the same [and] not take this report at face value.”
Specifically, Schanzenbach and others are pointing to changes in the survey that may have caused a spike in nonresponse rates. The Census, seeking more data, added many questions, doubling the length of time it takes to complete, and they pushed food security questions behind questions about travel and whether a respondee has benefits.
The questions went from page 8 of a 20 page survey to page 16 of a 40 page survey.
Because topics like food insecurity were pushed down in the order of questions, many stopped responding by the time they reached them.
“With everything that’s going on in people’s lives, other priorities. [It] shouldn’t be a surprise that people were not staying to the end of this survey to complete questions at the tail end,” said Joseph Llobrera, director of research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Those not responding to food security questions jumped by nearly four times, and among people who self-identify as having less education, it jumped by a factor of six. That is especially warping the statistic because that is the group most likely to be food insecure at this time.
“I don’t think there’s anything nefarious — don’t get me wrong — but I think it was a big mistake,” Schanzenbach said.
Texas’ number could be especially concerning because Hispanics were less likely to answer the questions.
“Among Hispanics, one out of five didn’t answer this question. Where it used to be one out of 28… that just gives you just gives you a real biased response,” she said.
New questionnaire is much longer. Like 20 min vs. old 12 min. People drop off as the survey goes on. Here’s what nonresponse %’s are, by section, in week 12 vs. week 13. pic.twitter.com/uBhwaDJLXM
— Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (@dwschanz) September 10, 2020
“I seriously have not been this disappointed since the year my husband only bought me scented candles for Christmas,” said Schanzenbach, explaining the nonresponse numbers in a tweet.
She and others have called on the Census to fix the problems they’re seeing now. Some have suggested randomizing the sections, or putting priority areas — such as people being able to feed themselves — closer to the top. Schanzenbach would be content if they just returned it to the fourth module.
The decline in the numbers does coincide with the unemployment rate falling, from over 10% nationwide in July to 8.4% — or about 2.8 million fewer people — now.
Undoubtedly the improvement in the economy is helping, but even with taking the current survey at face value, the numbers are still stark.
“Tens of millions of Americans are saying that they sometimes or often can’t get enough can’t put enough food on the table. So, I think we should not lose sight of that piece,” Llobrera said.
For months, Texas has been awash in need. More than 400,000 families have been showing up at food banks each week. That’s more than twice what it usually is. Federal response has been slow at times, and then evaporated, as with the Pandemic Unemployment Benefits. Congress has failed to pass a continuation of the benefits that most agree are necessary at some level.
Those benefits could return in Texas as the federal government redirects FEMA dollars to unemployment. Critics see that as a controversial move as the state endures hurricane season, already having seen two deadly storms slam into the state.
But even with the benefits, the numbers grew through July, finally hitting 3.6 million Texans as “sometimes” or “often not having enough to eat.”
Food banks across Texas expected to be very busy in August without the additional unemployment benefits.
“We are bracing to get hammered,” said Libby Campbell, CEO of the West Texas Food Bank, at the end of July.
In San Antonio, food bank executives said the number did go up in August, but the big surge everyone expected never came.
“I would have expected us to be in worse shape than we are,” said Eric Cooper, president of the San Antonio Food Bank.
The number of cars in line at the San Antonio Food Bank’s mass distribution appeared smaller than average Friday morning, but organizers say it still fed 1,200 families.
“It’s been weird,” said Cooper. “It was a little down, and then last week our northside distribution had some record numbers, then today it was low.”
The food bank may explore different hours for the distributions as families adjust to going back to school and in some cases going back to work. The numbers are still roughly the same as they’ve been throughout, double what they usually are. So, while he isn’t sure what’s behind the shifting numbers, he’s sure they didn’t see a 40% drop in people in the past six weeks.
“No, we’re talking like 1 or 2 or 3%….It’s not really coming down,” he said.
The organization has kept pace with the need over the past six months. In many ways, images of the organizations record setting April 9 distribution — where they fed an estimated 50,000 people — crystalized for the country that the downturn could go from being an economic crisis to a humanitarian one.
Pre-pandemic, the Food Bank estimated that Bexar County already had 271,790 people lacking access to enough nutritious food. It estimates that number will grow by more than a third to 377,020, with nearly 150,000 of them being children.
“I think the big picture story remains the same,” said Llobrera, “(Food) hardship went up dramatically at the start of the pandemic, and it hasn’t really come down significantly since then.”
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